Siblings in Science
by Amy DerBedrosian
Taia Wu ’15 and Julie Korsmeyer ’19 are siblings with a lot in common: Scripps College, a chemistry major, experience at NASA’s Ames Research Center, living in the San Francisco Bay Area, a half-Chinese ethnicity. Yet the two women share no familial relationship and have never met in person.
The explanation for their relationship lies in another of their connections, the Advanced Lab in Chemistry course required of chemistry and biochemistry majors in the W.M. Keck Science Department of Claremont McKenna, Pitzer, and Scripps Colleges. Wu and Korsmeyer have become “big and little siblings” to one another through a new mentoring program involving current students and past participants in the course. The program began after Assistant Professor of Chemistry Babak Sanii polled the Advanced Lab Council of Elders Facebook group he’d set up for former students, seeking input on how to best support them as well as current class members. Given a list of possibilities, the alumni declared a mentoring program their overwhelming favorite. “There’s a lot of alumni desire to engage. More alumni volunteered to become big siblings than I had students in the class,” says Sanii, noting that 23 graduates offered to mentor 21 students, nearly half of whom attend Scripps. “The program is up to the people involved. I introduced them to each other, provided ideas, and told them that if they met in person, there should be an exchange of pastries.”
Sanii paired former and current students with common interests, such as graduate school, a career in industry, or a specific area of science. He also considered individual preference, such as a mentoring relationship with a woman or with someone from the same college. After that, the siblings were on their own, communicating primarily via email. The matchmaking supported the intent of the mentoring. Sanii explains, “It’s about career choices and career paths, and how to navigate them. It’s not about how to succeed in the class.” Yet it’s fitting that the program would originate with Advanced Lab in Chemistry and Sanii. The professor says the course is “like a capstone course for chemists,” introducing students to collaborative science, presenting challenges such as decaffeinating green coffee beans, and incorporating discussions about careers, graduate school, and issues related to race, gender, and ethnicity in the field.
Sanii’s own career path made him realize the importance of helping science students understand their options. Unlike many professors, Sanii didn’t go directly into academia, instead working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Pixar before pursuing a PhD in applied science and joining The Claremont Colleges faculty in 2013. He notes, “You have to be opportunity driven. Medical school often appeals to science students because it’s a track. But most careers are not a track, and you can still be successful.”As students in Sanii’s class imagine their next stages in science, they can now turn to mentors like Wu. A second-year biochemistry PhD student at the University of California, San Francisco, she had found mentors in her undergraduate professors Nancy Williams and Aaron Leconte. But as a recent graduate, Wu can offer Korsmeyer insights that faculty members can’t provide.
“They’re not a 20-something woman in the first three years of her career,” Wu explains. “I have information about different resources and tools, and the challenges women very early in scientific careers run into. Mentorship programs can be critical because there’s the potential to be frank about being a woman in science.” Like Wu, her little sibling is planning a career in research. Korsmeyer anticipates talking to Wu about graduate school applications, research advisors, and professional development. The Scripps junior says, “It’s nice to hear about another professional in the field and what I might encounter. The program helps me learn from her experience.” Korsmeyer has been a mentor herself, to first-year students in the department’s Accelerated Integrated Science Sequence. She says, however, “That was very different because we were all in school and met in person. I haven’t seen any program that’s for alumni of a class, not alumni of a school.” For another Scripps little sibling, the mentoring program is offering a window into an unexplored career opportunity. Ana Vitomirov ’19 hadn’t considered working in industry until she heard what Isabel Lippincott ’17 does as a quality control analyst at AntriaBio, a Colorado pharmaceutical company. Now she’s added it to her list of options, along with medical, dental, and graduate school.This is Vitomirov’s first mentoring experience, and she particularly values having another woman from Scripps as her big sibling. She explains, “It mattered to me because there’s such a community here in terms of empowering women. It’s helpful to have a mentor who has gone through the same experience. I’m hoping the mentorship program will also help me establish networking connections.” Lippincott appreciates her own mentors, who include her biochemist mother as well as Sanii and Professor of Chemistry Mary Hatcher-Skeers. Now, she’s eager to assist someone herself. Lippincott says, “It’s important to be able to talk to someone who can tell you what you can do with your degree. It’s hard to know where you’re going after graduation because there are so many options in science you don’t even know are options. That can be very daunting. Mentors provide a resource and the pep talk when you need it.”
Another Scripps chemistry student, Emma Stacy ’19, has already determined she wants to go into environmental science after graduation. But she made this decision only recently, first considering medicine. For guidance about her new area of interest, Stacy is turning to her big sibling, Tricia Light ’17, a Fulbright Research Award recipient currently in Spain. “It’s nice to have Tricia to tell me the steps I can take. I’ve asked her what I might do for my senior thesis and how to make it successful. I didn’t have a mentor before who could provide such specific advice,” says Stacy. “Seeing Tricia do amazing things inspires me to feel I could do that as well.”Though each of these mentoring relationships pairs Scripps women, other matches include a sibling who is from another college or male. For example, biochemistry major Susanna Barrett ’19 is mentored by Sabrina Werby, a 2016 Pitzer College graduate and second-year Stanford University doctoral student in the Chemistry Department. “Science requires a lot of life planning,” says Barrett, who is interested in a PhD in chemical biology and becoming a professor. “It’s good to be paired with someone in graduate school who can provide tips about that passage. She’s at a top-tier program, so I can talk to her about how she made connections there. This is a good opportunity to get real-world advice from someone who did it just a year or two ago.”
In some cases, the gap between siblings is even smaller. Mariah Mastrodimos ’18 became a big sibling to Claremont McKenna College junior Emma Choy before completing her Scripps education in December 2017. The two were already acquainted and, with both in Claremont, have been able to meet in person in addition to using email.
“There’s a lot of alumni desire to engage. More alumni volunteered to become big siblings than I had students in the class.”
—Assistant Professor of Chemistry Babak Sani
Belen Cruz ’14 also served as a mentor while an undergraduate, but in a program for Scripps transfer students rather than Advanced Lab in Chemistry participants. Now the Scripps chemistry graduate is a big sibling to Claremont McKenna College junior Timothy Gallagher. Cruz spent three years in quality control analysis with Shire, a global biotechnology company focused on rare diseases, before deciding to obtain a math teaching credential. She’s able to address Gallagher’s questions about becoming a strong candidate for an industry position and the day-to-day experience. “It’s my nature to want to help people, and it’s nice to see someone who is so driven and focused on what he wants to do,” says Cruz. “I was happy that I had direct experience in the field he wanted.” Cruz intends to remain available to Gallagher through graduation—and afterward if he wishes. Interest in a long-term commitment is common among the siblings, who want to see the program continue and grow. Vitomirov hopes the alumni come to Claremont for a face-to-face meeting with their little siblings. Lippincott would like the program to become a network of students and graduates across the Keck Science Department. And Stacy envisions serving as a mentor herself after graduation. Sanii embraces all of their aspirations. He says, “It would be great to see people feel connected through the program years after they’re gone. I also like the idea of building a multigenerational community. As part of my class, I have students design an introductory chemistry lab. They learn about mentoring and realize how far they’ve come. Introductory students need connections with more advanced students.”
But students aren’t the only ones who benefit from the new mentorship program. Though they’ve been siblings for only a short time, Wu says of her relationship with Korsmeyer, “Julie makes me feel excited about the future of science. It’s a privilege to talk to the Advanced Lab students, and I’m grateful for the honor of being part of the program. The creation of something like this is what makes Scripps unique and important for women in science.”
“Mentorship programs can be critical because there’s the potential to be frank about being a woman in science.”
—Taia Wu ’15
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